We live in a political world
Where mercy walks the plank
Life is in mirrors, death disappears
Up the steps into the nearest bank
Tuesday, March 21, 2023
#80 / The Promise Of Politics #2
The Hannah Arendt Virtual Reading Group, whose online gatherings I faithfully attend, meets most Fridays to consider one or another of Hannah Arendt's writings. Most recently, the group discussed "Introduction Into Politics," the last essay found in a book that gathers together a number of Arendt's essays, and which is titled, The Promise of Politics. I have, by the way, written about this book before.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am quite "positive" about politics. I do think that politics is "promising," and that politics is worth all the time and energy we can possibly put into it. I don't call this blog, "We Live In A Political World" for nothing. I do think - in fact, I am completely convinced - that it is through "politics" that we can realize our hopes and aspirations.
I have a little "formula," or "equation," as I sometimes call it, that outlines how we determine what happens in the world that we, together, create by what we do. Again, frequent readers of this blog will have seen this little formula before:
Politics > Law > Government
"Government" is the name we give to our collective effort to determine what happens to to us - what our economy is like, how our health care system is structured, what land uses will shape the natural environment, who gets housing, who gets education, how our transportation system should be designed, Etc. "Government" is the name we give to how things are "governed," how things work.
Of course, how things work - how we "govern" the world - is outlined in and established by the "Law." The "Law" is that set of rules and regulations that require that something will be done one way, and not another. Laws establish who gets paid, and how much, and who goes to jail, and for how long. Etc.
But, and here's the part that I think we sometimes overlook - since it is easy to look around and "observe" how things are, without remembering that we are not only "observers," but "actors," too - "Politics" is what ultimately gives us the "Law." Our laws are not like the "laws" of physics, which perfectly describe what must and will happen, given stated conditions. Our laws don't tell us what must happen; they tell us what we want to happen; they are expressions of possibility, not certainty.
And, to repeat this point once again, "Politics" is what ultimately decides what the "Law" will be, and therefore how our world will be governed.
Since I understand the world in the way I have just described, and since I have also had direct experience in politics, as an elected official, I am very much convinced that "political" actions can change the laws, and then, by doing so, can change what happens in our world. I see "politics" as the way we can, collectively, change the world to be the way we want it to be, and therefore I have a "positive" idea about "politics."
Not everyone, of course, thinks this way, and not everyone is "positive" about politics. Bob Dylan, for instance, to whom I regularly repair for guidance, appears to have a rather negative view of politics. Consider, as one example, the following lines from Dylan's song, "Political World":
The other verses of the song are equally negative. Click that link, above, if you want the full treatment.
I say, along with Dylan, that we "live in a political world," but I am positive where Dylan is negative. Dylan is giving us the benefit of his acute observations about how politics is actually operating, and what it is actually producing; he is not speaking as a political actor. That is, really, the only reason that Dylan and I might disagree about "politics." I think Dylan is pretty much "on target" in telling us - as an "observer" of politics - how our politics is currently being conducted. It is pretty hard to be "positive" about politics if we are just observing what is happening.
I am urging us all to get involved in politics as "actors," and to change the results that we currently "observe." I am quite "positive" about politics when I think about what we can do, what is possible if we take political action, as we can.
If you hunt down Arendt's "Introduction Into Politics" essay (which I do recommend), you will find that Arendt describes a political situation in which everyone pretty much has an individual set of opinions, which often contradict the opinions held by others. And, of course, everyone also has a set of personal "interests," and these interests are different, too. In other words, conflict, not consensus, is the ground of our politics, and Arendt is very clear that she thinks that our disagreements about political questions is a "feature" not a "bug." Arendt, remember, wrote her first major book on The Origins of Totalitarianism, and she saw, firsthand, what happens when political power is wielded to eliminate disagreements, to eliminate what she calls "plurality."
People, usually, don't like to be caught up in "disagreement," so they avoid situations in which they encounter it. This is, Arendt would say, one of the main reasons that people do not get involved with politics. Even though we have based our political system on the idea that we will govern ourselves - the idea that we will practice democratic "self-government" - many, if not most of us, flee from politics as from the plague, because we don't like the conflict and disagreement inherently present in any political activity. What we tend to think would be better, Arendt says, is government by "experts." In fact, what that gives us is oligarchy and the "deep state," which may be the same thing, by different names. Government by "experts" is worse than the alternative of getting involved in politics ourselves.
If we think of "politics" as how we, collectively, decide what we are going to do, given the various disagreements that inevitably exist in our world of "plurality," then our conflicts and disagreements are, truly a "feature," not a "bug." No one knows for certain what will be the best thing to do, so we need to talk and argue, and work out what compromises we can. But the "political" system only works as it is supposed to if we get involved ourselves. The system doesn't work if we "elect the people, who hire the people (those "experts") who then tell us how we have to run our lives.
We have to "talk to those strangers" with whom we disagree, or seem to disagree, and we need to acknowledge the right of others to have different views and interests, while nonetheless seeking to have the laws we enact reflect what we think are the right priorities. Suppressing differences and disagreements (or trying to pretend they don't even exist), leads to a worse result than working through our disagreements and differences to the best result we can achieve, given all the real differences that do exist.
Politics is promising? Really?
That's what Hannah Arendt says, and I think she is absolutely right!